Home Individual Interview with FM Haruna Nsubuga

Interview with FM Haruna Nsubuga

by Tendai Mubayiwa

Today we uncover the life of FM Haruna Nsubuga, a Ugandan Chess player, through the eyes and notes of Kafuko Paul.

In a detailed dialogue with your correspondent Kafuko John Paul, he talked about his chess journey from scratch to the top, how he attained the ‘singa talabs’ crown, his future plans in education and chess from a business perspective.

Who is Haruna Nsubuga?

Haruna is a humble gentleman from Kireka, born on the 24th day of December, 1991. I was nicknamed ‘Kabaya’, a Swahili word, which means “badman or dangerous”, because I am talented at different sports such as draughts, checkers, skating, basketball and boxing. I finished college education at Kyambogo College School, where I was always among the best students with little effort as compared to my competitors.

I later pursued a Diploma in Human Resource Management, at Makerere University Business School. I won a full scholarship of class member of Information Technology at Kampala International University, but never completed this course, because I felt my future lies in business and becoming a professional chess player, not in education. Much as I was a bright student in school, I preferred to follow in the steps of my high profile business oriented family.

I am a FIDE Master known for my aggressive and speculative approach with a combined depth in tactics and endgame technique. I have held myself in the top ten Uganda chess players since 2011 and I am in the battle to attain an International Master title soon. I am currently ranked no.7 amongst the Ugandan chess players and rated 2222.

I am also a player of Kireka Chess Club and Kenya Commercial Bank Chess Team (KCB)

What inspired you to play chess?

I got inspiration to play chess from the gift that I was born in a town of chess, Kireka, with the Chess Club located just beside my home. Of late my inspiration has been drawn from individual friends mainly Were Bob, the Human Resource Manager of United Nations in Uganda who also serves as the President of Kireka Chess Club and Mr Murwana, the patron Kireka Chess Club.

Please take us through your chess journey

I started playing chess in 2005 when I was 14 years old. In 2007, under the auspices of one of my coaches, Wesonga Micheal, I participated in my first Junior Chess Championship in Kampala. With hard work and consistency in attaining positive results, I was included on the Kireka Chess team by Mwaka Emmanuel the current Uganda Chess Federation President. He was the captain of Kireka Chess club then. My late start to playing the game did not hinder my rapid progress because I was so passionate about the game and I am naturally a fast learner.

One of my highlights developing as a chess player was defeating one of my coaches Mr. Nerson in a prized sponsored event. He is currently the Uganda Volleyball Association President. A turning point towards my progress was observed in 2007 when my parents who had earlier on discouraged and neglected my passionate involvement in chess then sponsored me to participate in my first ever International Checkmates Club Tournament in Nairobi. I garnered five points out of a possible seven rounds and won a gold medal as the best youngest participant. My mother continued supporting my international events mainly in Nairobi until her demise in 2016. I should say that the road to becoming a master was so much spiced up by the financial support from my family.

I have won many chess events but the most notable ones are the National Chess Championship and the National Junior Chess Championship in 2011, Mombasa Open, Equity Bank Championship in 2016, Rwanda Genocide Chess Championship 2017, Casablanca Memorial, St Louis Open Championship 2018 in Victoria the capital of Seychelles and the Nairobi Chess Championship 2018. I also qualified for the 2018 Olympiad in Batumi Georgia. I am also a FIDE Master a title I attained from the Africa Zone 4.2 Individual Chess Championship in Tanzania, Dar es Salaam in 2016. I have also represented Uganda at the 2014 Zonals in Egypt where I attained my Candidate Master title, 2015 Uganda, and 2017 Addis Ababa where I came number 4 African Zone 4.2 Chess Championship editions.

Some of my memorable wins are against Hesham Abdelrahman at the Zone 4.2 Individual Chess Championship in Cairo Egypt. I also can’t forget to mention a remarkable painful loss I suffered at the hands of Khartoum’s ranked number one Samir Nadir in 2017. May we meet again over the board.

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Haruna awarded as Champion at Nairobi Chess Championships 2018

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A critical analysis of my game against Hesham is shown hereunder:

During the 2014 Zone 4.2 Africa Individual Chess Championship, you played an interesting game against GM Amin Bassem. Your bishop on f3 was very strong dominating all white’s light squares. Your rooks were very active dominating the lone open file as opposed to the GM’s rooks. He actually said in one interview that you gave him the hardest time in the tournament and that you were winning. See https://www.google.com/amp/s/africachessmedia.com/2014/12/20interview-gm-bassem-amin-egypt-africas-top-chess-player/amp/ Please tell us why you failed to get even a draw from this game. And what the GM’s comments meant to you?

I managed to get a good position from this game and I enjoyed it. I rejected a draw offer he made out of little experience. Much as he won the tournament with 8.5 points out of 9, in his interview with chess.com he acknowledged that “I had a good event though I only felt a hard game which I was supposed to lose against Uganda’s player Haruna Nsubuga” His comments motivated me to improve on my game and they are responsible for all the success that followed.

I managed to analyse that game as shown hereunder.


[Event “African Zone 4.2”]

[Site “Cairo, Egypt.”]

[Date “2014.11.28”]

[Round “?”]

[White “Amin, Bassem”]

[Black “Nsubuga, Haruna”]

[Result “1-0”]

[WhiteElo “2626”]

[BlackElo “2125”]

[ECO “A04”]

1. Nf3 c5

{I had a plan of playing a symmetrical English game}

2. g3 Nc6 3. Bg2 d5

{Just on move three I opted now to change and play for the center. An idea which I thought could give me chances against a grandmaster.}

4. O-O Nf6 5. d3 e5 6. Nbd2 Be7 7. e4

{when he played this move I had two thoughts, one was to close and the other is to open up as I always wished.}

7… dxe4 8. dxe4 O-O 9. c3 Bg4

{here I think a plan of b6 then bishop to a6 would be better for my bishop.}

10. h3 Bc8

{another inaccuracy.at this moment losing a bishop pair by picking the knight on f3 was the best option since his g2 bishop was also closed up.}

11. Qe2 b6 12. Nh4 a5 13. Rd1 Ba6 14. Qf3 Qd3 15. Nf5 Qxf3

{I always trusted myself to play endgames better against stronger opposition}

16. Nxf3 Rfd8

{this was inaccurate, Rfe8 was a better move.}

17. Bg5 h6

{maybe I had to accept that I wasted a move and play rook to e8 instead of h6.}

18. Nxe5 Nxe5 19. Nxe7+ Kf8 20. Bxf6 gxf6 21. Nd5

{here my position was already bad though I wasn’t completely lost as it looked.}

21… Be2 22. Re1 Nf3+ 23. Bxf3 Bxf3

{I gained some energy when I happened to attain that diagonal bishop.}

24. Nxb6 Rab8 25. Nc4 Rd3

{black is now two pawns down with a bad pawn structure. However there are still a lot of pieces to declare it over for black.}

26. Rac1 a4 27. Rc2 Rbd8 28. Rcc1 Rb8 29. g4 Kg8

{blacks plan is to play king h7 then rook g8 for plans of h5 pawn breaks.}

30. Kh2 Kh7 31. Rc2 h5 32. g5 h4

{picking the g5 pawn was a blunder that would be met by a knight fork on e5.}

33. a3 Rbd8 34. gxf6

{at this moment, I started liking my position.}

34.Rd1 35. Rc1

{exchanging that the rook immediately would lead to unavoidable mate at h1.}

35… Rg8

{now I started getting visible chances of a perpetual check.}

36. Ne3 Rd2 37. Rf1 Rxb2 38. e5

{here the grand master asked for a draw but as he didn’t see any progress in the position.}

38… Rg5 39. Ng4 Kg6

{now my wrong mentality of winning this game geared up and I started playing dubiously.}

40. Rce1 Be2

{a dubious move which wasn’t called for}

41. Rg1 Bxg4

{now picking up the knight at a wrong time.}

42. hxg4 Rxf2+ 43. Kh3 Rf3+ 44. Kxh4 Kh6 45. e6

{a move black hadn’t anticipated.}

45… fxe6 46. Ref1 Rxf1 47. Rxf1 Rg8 48. f7 Rf8 49. g5+ Kg7 50. Kg4 Kh8 51. g6 Kg7 52. Kg5 Rd8 53. f8=Q+

{and white is now winning}

53… Rxf8 54. Rxf8

{I resigned. With this illustrative game against the African best grandmaster. I knew that my dreams of becoming a Grand Master one day were valid.}

54… Kxf8 {I resigned.} 1-0

In 2016, you won the inaugural Equity Open Chess Championship in Nairobi Kenya ahead of top favorites like Ssegwanyi Arthur, Wanyama Harold, and Kawuma Patrick. How did you perceive this victory?

I think winning an event where all the top players featured proved the kind of potential I possess as far as chess in East Africa and Africa at large is concerned. This event put me into the lime light on the East and African continent.

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Haruna receives his trophy from Wanjala Bernard after emerging victorious at the Equity Open Chess Championship

Early this year 2018, you were invited to Seychelles to promote chess. Give us an insight about what happened during this trip. And of all the players in Uganda why did they invite you?

I had a simultaneous chess exhibition with the local players and also participated in the St Louis Open Tournament to nurture the players.

I met the President of Seychelles Chess Federation in Ethiopia last year and I think my interaction with him proved to be of much value to present the federation an opportunity to invite me than any other player. I also have a spouse in the country who happens to be amongst the best chess players there.

In April 2018, you finally qualified for the Olympiad after about three attempts. However critics said that your performance was below par and not up to Uganda Chess Team standards especially after the ‘apparently’ easy defeats against IM Emojong Elijah, Okas Walter and a draw in a lost endgame against newbie Kato Richard.

See www.chess-results.com/PartieSuche.aspx?Ian=1&id=50023&tnr=347095&art=3 What do you have to say about this?

Somehow they could be right but nevertheless I don’t believe that I wasn’t up to the standards of the national team. This always happens when fans expect too much from you. But in chess there is always a recess period when someone is making a transition in strength and style of play of which I believe I am in the same situation. However since I qualified and I am now part of the team, the chess fraternity should look forward to seeing the next performances that I am about to exhibit.

It is said that ever since your rise to the top and possibly that of IM Emojong Elijah, Uganda has not seen any child/teen prodigies fulfill their potential playing chess. It is argued that many of these prodigies stagnate along the way. What causes stagnation among the prodigies and how did you survive this syndrome?

I think we started playing chess at a time when there were plenty of tournaments which attracted a lot of senior players from which we always got chance to interact and play with the best. The experience attained from playing numerous top players just built up my passion. It’s just unfortunate that nowadays juniors majorly play amongst themselves.

Of late the Ugandan juniors have been faltering at the big stage. Some people say they are misrepresentation of the strength of the Ugandan senior chess team which is a power house in the region and thus making the future of Uganda chess bleak. As a senior player, how do you recommend the juniors be improved to match the standards of the senior team or even better?

Top juniors have to participate in almost all possible open tournaments just to attain experience and learn more from the seniors.

You are one of the players who has played the most number of tournaments in Uganda thus attracting the name “tournament monger”. Some say you can literally smell a tournament before its even advertised. What motivates you to keep playing?

True I have played more than 50 tournaments in my career so far. I am the only player in the top ten who has played and earned experience playing mainly tournaments within the East African region unlike my competitors who have explored much more than me outside East Africa. I try to participate in almost all available events to catch up with my compatriots in terms of experience.

You described your style of play as aggressive and speculative. However you are a staunch fan of the Carokann defence, a highly defensive and conservative opening. How do these two approaches relate?

Chess is a game where someone’s strength does not just come out of the blue. By the time a player becomes a master it’s an indication that he can try out many different motifs on a chess board. So mixing up styles is just part of the many skills a master like me possesses.

You have been nicknamed the king of “singa talabs” in East and Central Africa. How were you able to achieve this crown?

The word singa talabs simply means deep in tricks or you can call it tactical play. I always create many tactical problems for my opponent as the game progresses. I was inspired by the famous former World Champion GM Mikhail Tal “the magician from Riga” to play like this after studying a number of his games.

Is ‘singa talabs’ part of your game plan and strategy?

Hahaha! These are all components of master play. Sometimes masters play moves in accordance with the strength of their opponents and this stretches even up to GM level. So it is just a speculative tendency by stronger players to make moves in anticipation that certain levels of players won’t easily see what is going to happen in the next series of moves.

Social media has been awash with pictures of the Haruna challenge. Some people now refer to you as the chess slay king. Recently one of your photos was voted the best chess photo in the Spanish Magazine, The Thinkers by David Llada (captioned below). It was taken in Kenya at the Mombasa Open 2016. What does chess have to do with fashion?

Well fashion is smartness and I believe chess is also a smart game for smart people. However I am also a businessman who deals in clothes and fashion. So the way I dress up during games is a promotion towards my clothing business.


Haruna Nsubuga | Image by David Llada

Many players and commentators have described you as one lucky guy with over 1,000 lives. You have a tendency of winning or at least drawing completely lost positions. Are you in the habit of hypnotizing your opponents to fall for your tricks over the board?

I think chess being a game does not eliminate the fact that God exists. I am spiritually strong in my religion of Islam. I have also always been lucky in all aspects of life. So the 1,000 lives I have in chess are because of my strong relationship with Allah.

You said you are spiritually strong in Islam. How do you balance your religion and chess for example during the fasting season? Do you fast during tournaments?

There is time for everything. Sometimes I cease playing chess when it’s Ramadhan period.

What challenges have you faced in your chess playing career and how have you managed to overcome them?

The lack of adequate financial support is the biggest challenge. The time am supposed to spend in training and improving on my game is spent on looking for money through my businesses. So this hinders my progress. So apparently I am multi tasking to get funds to train and play.

There has been an assertion by many that you are strong tactically and aggressively but still lacking in positional and strategic chess understanding. Now that you have qualified for the Olympiad and part of the National team, what are your plans in mitigating this weakness before getting to the big stage?

I think chess is a very diverse and complicated game with many different aspects. Positional chess is just one of the game aspects but in general there could be over seven aspects to fulfill before winning a game. If I have managed to win a number of events where all the so called positional chess players participated, then it means that there are many things that should be combined to win a game for example preparation, psychology, determination, tactics, positive mentality to win and many others.

Graydon Carter once said “I have always thought you could take the measure of a man by his sports manner – that is to say, the way in which he conducts himself on the playing field, or even over a game of chess or cards”. Would I be

right to say that you are an aggressive and speculative character in real life?

To a certain extent chess always imitates a person’s character. Being a good chess player simply explains that am a good person in my social life.

From a business perspective, what do you think chess in Uganda is lacking to make it a professional sport which pays well?

I think in this case we need to involve the government to respect the industry and invest in it. This will create an appeal to the international market which increases the demand for talent from various clubs and potential sponsors who will make the game professional.

Chess is still lacking in terms of sponsorship and yet incidentally chess players are known to be the most talkative people. As a businessman, how can they transform this talk into opportunities for sustainable sponsorship?

I believe the main key to sponsorship is publicity. Publicizing the game creates multiple bridges to reach out to potential sponsors.

“I believe that people make their own luck by great preparation and good strategy.” Jack Canfield. How do you always prepare for a game?

I just only try to understand what my opponent is good at then I simply play something which does not favour his style of play.

What is your opinion about gambling in chess commonly known as syndicate?

I think gambling and syndicate being immoral and unethical in most societies makes it also a bad practice towards the beautiful game of chess. It also reduces the level of quality in games simply because many players can always just sit back and relax expecting to attain cheap success.

I see you have suffered at the hands of many Egyptians. What do we need to do as a country to overcome this Egyptian curse?

I realized that there is nothing much the Egyptians do to play better than us. The difference is in experience, because they are just near the European continent which makes them easily travel to challenge the grandmasters of France and other nearby European countries.

What is your analysis of the upcoming World Championship match between GM Magnus Carlsen and GM Fabiano Caruana and who do you think will win the match?

This is the match I have always been waiting for. For the fast time am seeing Carlsen verse a challenger who is equally strong. I would actually put my odds on Fabiano because of his accuracy of play unlike all the previous challengers. However I can’t say that it will be easy for Fabiano though it’s always so interesting to see world’s number one ranked player versing world’s number two in ranking. So this can always go either way much as my stakes are on Caruana.

What targets do you have in your chess career and how are you planning to achieve them?

First and foremost I need to attain an International Master title (IM) so soon Insha Allah from the international chess events like Zonals and the Olympiad. Then secondly I am looking forward to sharing my chess knowledge with both kids and adults through coaching. I also intend to continue putting up strong performances for my clubs KCB (Kenya Commercial Bank) chess club and Kireka Chess Club.

Which player has had the most significant impact on your chess career and why?

Michael Wesonga is the player I can’t forget to talk about as far as the rise of my chess career is concerned. He taught me almost all the basics when I was still a junior. In addition, he facilitated all my initial junior tournaments using his own finances. In a nutshell, Michael was my coach, trainer, sponsor and morale booster who built my passion in all aspects of the game.

Any last words for your fans out there?

I still have a lot for them in stock to display. I promise to become the third International Master and first Grand Master in East and Central Africa.


“He has always been a daring player and always willing to learn.” Wesonga Micheal

“He has always been an erratic player and famous for singa talabs but of late he has made significant improvements and he is now playing some decent chess. He is a fighter and has the potential to make 2300+. He is also a likeable character.” Okas Walter.

“We used to play a lot together. He used to be very tactical those days but he has now improved on his positional and strategic understanding of the game.” Kamoga Rajab.

“He has improved a lot from the singa talabs player of those days. He can now play positional and strategic positions very well and understands endgames.” FM Wanyama Harold


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Seun Adelugba October 15, 2018 - 6:35 pm

Nice piece….but he will loose the bey on Caruana😁

Githinji Hinga October 16, 2018 - 3:30 pm

Nice guy. In one year he gained 130+ Elos. Clearly he’s doing something right. Definitely an IM in waiting. Nice article.


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